No Fairy Tale: Paul Binding on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ice Virgin”

In this interview from Words Without Borders, Eric M. B. Becker speaks with Paul Binding about his translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Virgin (Angel Classics, 2016; The Overlook Press, 2017). Binding’s is the first English-language translation to propose a reading of the classic as an adult work worthy of being considered independently from the anthologies of Andersen’s fairy tales, where it has traditionally appeared.

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The Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park, New York City.
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Paul Binding’s translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Virgin (Angel Classics, 2016; The Overlook Press, 2017)

“Andersen must have seen that the livelier response of the reading public to his fairy tales corresponded to recognition of a unique imaginative magic in himself.”

WWB: Andersen drew on his experiences traveling throughout Switzerland in the 1830s for The Ice Virgin, just as he drew on travels to Italy around the same time for his first novel, The Improvisatore, which is often described as an autobiographical novel. Today, it’s common to talk about autofiction. Can The Ice Virgin — and Andersen’s work at large — be read as autofiction, or do we miss something by classifying it as such?

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Illustration from the 1871 edition of ‘Iisjomfruen’ (The Ice Virgin) by Hans Christian Andersen

“There is a sense then in which the Ice Virgin . . . has an existence, a will autonomously of her own, brought into being — or kept alive, if you like — by the collective fears of the popular mind.”

WWB: Not a small part of the appeal of The Ice Virgin is that it gives us a look into the adult work of a writer who, as we’ve mentioned, is best known in the English-speaking world for his children’s tales. Interestingly, previous translations of The Ice Virgin have been included in anthologies alongside his other fairy tales. To what do you owe this fact and what first convinced you that this was actually a misclassification?

“Rudy, for all his vigor and handsome appearance and the trophies he wins, belongs to those ‘left behind.’ He’d be, I suppose, a Brexiteer.”

WWB: Though The Ice Virgin is a work of adult fiction, it does employ many of the techniques of the fairy tale. Our protagonist, Rudy, for example, converses with a cat and dog early in the novella. I imagine this played some role in the novella’s classification as fairy tale before this new translation in which you frame it as an adult work. But to what extent can The Ice Virgin be read as a synthesis or at least the product of a twenty-five-year career that includes work across not just the genres of adult and children’s literature but also theater and poetry? What is the novella’’ place in Andersen’s work? In what way does Andersen remain relevant to audiences today?

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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